MINNEAPOLIS, April 13—Of the top 20 independently owned public relations firms in the United States, only two--Gibbs & Soell and Padilla Speer Beardsley—are in their second generation of leadership. The rest, including giants such as Edelman Public Relations Worldwide and Ruder Finn, are still led, at least in part, by the people who founded them. A look at the top 20 from a decade ago reveals that nine have sold to large advertising agencies, while just two (Edward Howard & Co. and Aaron D. Cushman & Associates) have handed over the reins to a next generation of management—and both of those have dropped at least 20 places in the rankings.

In other words, it’s not easy for entrepreneurs in this business to come up with a succession plan that keeps their firms independent and on track, which is why a lot of middle-aged PR agency principals will be watching developments at Padilla Speer Beardsley with interest as partner John Beardsley passes the leadership baton to Lynn Casey.

The agency took the first step in its transition to leadership this week with the announcement that the 45-year-old Casey has been elected chief executive officer, succeeding Beardsley, who will continue as chairman of the board and chairman of the executive committee into next year. According to Beardsley, 64, Casey’s promotion “signals a new generation of leadership for our 40-year-old firm.”

It’s a generational transition that the firm has been thinking about for at least a decade. All of the firm’s officers own stock—which they bought—and an employee stock ownership plan created nine years ago has put stock in the hands of other employees. “It’s a non-leveraged ESOP,” says Casey. “That means there’s enough in the bank that we can buy out the five largest shareholders over a few years without having to sell the company or borrow money.”

The firm also has a strong leadership team in place, consisting of Casey; public affairs practice head Tom Bartikoski; corporate and IR group leaders Marian Briggs and John Mackay; consumer practice chief Tom Jolley; and David Kisle, who heads the employee engagement and research units. Mackay is the newcomer among that group: he joined in 1985. The team has been together 15 years, although it did suffer a loss this month with the announcement that media relations director David Hakensen—a 16-year veteran of the firm—is leaving to become head of public relations for a client.

With such stability, it’s not surprising that Casey doesn’t envisage any sweeping changes.

“It’s easier to say what will not change,” says Casey. “The first thing is, we have a team of senior counselors in place that has been working together for several years. There’s a level of trust there that you don’t find at firms with higher turnover. The second thing is, we will continue to look to recruit people who have a great deal of experience, who can counsel as well as execute. The third thing is, we still have a very strong commitment to the values on which this firm was founded, and on which John Beardsley has run this firm. And the fourth thing is, we will continue to see ourselves as a community resource, working to give back to the Twin Cities market.”

Casey says her biggest priority will be to make PSB a stronger player in the Internet space. She cites recent research by the Council of Public Relations Firms into the way PR people are using new media, and says she believes there is still an opportunity, “even for an old line firm like this one,” to establish itself as a leader in the digital arena. “We are going to be much more aggressive in harnessing the power of the Internet for our clients,” she says.

That’s the only immediate change Casey plans to make, but she admits she’s open to the possibility of a more dramatic shift—including new ownership. “To this point, we haven’t been given a compelling reason to make any kind of move, and we’d need to see a very compelling reason. But we’re keeping the door open, for the sake of our clients and our people.”